The Commissioned Play: Good Idea or Bad Idea

Last weekend we saw “Maple and Vine” at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco. This isn’t going to be a review of the play. (There is much to admire, there are some things I didn’t like.) This play raised an issue for me, that I now want to think (and write) about.

In the credits at the bottom of the title page of the program it was mentioned that this play was commissioned by a theatre company. Many new works get started that way, and I have worked on a few. Every theatre’s commissioning process is different, and I do not know about the process that led to “Maple and Vine.” Also, many commissioned (and non-commissioned) plays have a few of the problems I see in the creating of new plays that I want to discuss due to “Maple and Vine.” (And I need to say again that while my examples come from “Maple and Vine,” it is part of a much much larger picture.)

Cast Size.
A playwright I know (and many people who read my blog would recognize her name if I mentioned it, but I won’t) complained to me once, “All people ask me is if I have any new three character plays!” Her frustration was that the cast size was the overarching element in play selection. In a professional production a three actor show only requires one stage manager, and probably only 2 understudies (if all the characters are the same type and sex, the union may only require one understudy!). So that makes five or six Equity Members (the union of professional actors and stage managers) required to be on the weekly pay roll. This can lead to anemic casts. “Maple and Vine” was a play set at an experimental community — yet it was a cast of only five. (Due to the racially specificity of the cast, it had 3 understudies). The issue for this play was I really wanted to see the other people in the community (the play actually has seven characters since two actors play two roles each). In my own attempts to write theatre, I have also had the problem of letting the realities of professional casting requirements affect how I structured my play.

While the following is not true of all commissions, it is often true. The theatre is paying the playwright for a play to be delivered on a certain time schedule so the play can be produced. That is a reality of the business, plays need to be produced. While some plays do spring almost fully formed from the playwright’s typewriter, or word processor — Many plays really need to sit in a drawer (or on a hard drive) and stew for a while before the play is ready to be revised and presented to an audience. With a commission, the playwright cannot really say “Hey, it’s not ready yet.” They have to say “Let’s hope I can fix it durring rehearsals.” My example from “Maple and Vine” deals with what story was being told. In many ways, the main plot was (to me) a bit less interesting than what seemed to be the secondary plot. I feel that possibly, had Jordan Harrison (the playwright) had more time he might have either refocussed the story on the main characters, or tightened up the perceived A plot to give more time to the more interesting B plot. (Of course the play may be just what Harrison wanted).

A commissioned play has a financial commitment behind it from the start. And that means that the people that commissioned it are more-than-likely going to actually produce it. (What a waste of money it would be for them to pay for a commission, and then decide not to actually produce the play! — Although I am sure it can and has happened.) The other way a new play gets selected for production is a playwright sending out a completed script and hoping that the theatre wants to do it. (OR sometimes a playwright is able to have produced or self produces a reading or workshop of the script to secure interest for larger producers). In these cases a theatre might opt for several paths — more workshops, development etc. — but won’t actually proceed with a full production until the script is really ready. (Full disclosure — I think that “Maple and Vine” was ready for a full production).

After a first production, playwrights can (and often do) examine what worked and what didn’t — then possibly rewrite. As long as the playwright is still alive, I think plays can be continually reexamined. I worked on two shows in my past where I had read the script before (long before) I had been hired to actually design the show. These shows were at least moderately successful, and had published scripts. After being hired to design them, and being handed the scripts, I discovered that the authors had revised the show since the original publication of the script. Some changes I think were for the better, some were not — but it is the author’s right to do make the script as close as possible to their vision. I fear that plays after their initial commissioned production are treated as “finished.” Here is where I think “Maple and Vine” is at fault. The play feels like a very good script that just needs one or two more passes to make it really great. At the moment it is very good, but in the production we saw, I truly feel with a less stellar cast it would have faltered at several points. And this point is what frustrated me most about the show. . . It was good, it was very good, but it lacked that little edge that would make it fantastic.

So I’ve talked about why commissions can be bad for scripts. Can they be good for theatre? Yes. When a play is being commissioned the commissioning group can request (demand) that the play meet certain criteria — feature a specific performer, deal with certain themes, meet certain production requirements (3 character play), tie in with a certain event etc. Some great plays have come out of this. Some really terrible stuff has emerged as well (and unfortunately gotten on stage). I don’t want to see commissions go away, but after the commission, I hope that writers will take a good hard look at what the wrote, and see if it really is the play they intended to write in the first place.

Dumping of Notes

So, I was at USITT for a week.  I have typed up my notes from the sessions I was in.  Here they are only slightly edited.    This is more of a resource for myself (and others), than an actual post. :

My Notes from an awesome adventure at USITT.   I apologize for any misspelled names, it probably has more to do with my ability to read my own handwriting than my spelling ability.  Class sessions/program names are in bold.


 Backstage at Disney

**World of Color Round table**

From Jason Badger — Process for programing fountains:

1200 DMS controlled fountains.  GrandMA 2* lighting desks were used to program fountains, video*, mist, moving lights, and flame units

Each moving fountain had an LED ring around it, that can project light approximately 60’ im the air.   It took three programmers to make the show happen


*later in the day I learned that 3 Grand MA 2s ran the show, with a spare just in case.  The video was programed via a huge (drool-inducing) rack of Hippotisers — with complete redundancy — all video was being computed by two separate units so the failure of a single unit would not hurt the show.


From Mike Carter — Networks

30 switches, run over fiber form the basic IP network.  This network is not connected to the Disney computer network (dark network).    Subnetworks were developed for each design area (i.e. sound, lighting, video, etc.).   Video data was so intense, each projector required a dedicated pair of fiber.   Certain parts of the network (especially sound) did have some interface with resort wide network.


From Jeremy???? — Sound

The system uses mostly Meyer sound.  The system runs at 96k resolution from the processors all the way to the speakers.   The downside is that the orchestral tracks were only recorded at 48K resolution.   Each audio tower has a network switch to accommodate the data.  A mix down of the show is sent to other areas of the park that are able to see the show to some extant.   This happens through the main park wide audio system.    The shows (amazing) low end reproduction is from 11 subterranean subwoofers.  (did he say in the drainage system???)


Jason Badger again — Video

4 Hippo media servers, 19 live projectors, 6 underwater projectors.  Spider (??) routing system.    Aspect ratio 4200×800 pixels.  12 Terabytes of storage.   Since “Beauty and the Beast”   all animated films have been digitally composited (each layer of hand animation individually scanned into a computer and then stack on top of each other) so any element can be pulled out for use in World of Color, or other show.   Older films may have elements rotoscoped out by the animation department if needed.  (Rotoscoping is a process of hand tracing frame by frame  of reference material).   Since World of Color went on-line, feature animation has been doing special animations of current (forthcoming) films specifically for inclusion in World of Color


From Pete ??? – Floating Docks

The fountains lights, etc submerged in the lagoon are attached to three separate submersible tables.   Each table moves up and down independently, and together they cover most of the lagoon (larger than a foot ball field!).    Each table has a water tight, submersible electrical room underneath it.  (Basically a sizable sea-crate.)  The tables have three positions (from lowest to highest) — Submerged (during the day when guests are in the park), Show Position (for performance, with the deck just below the surface of the water), and Maintenance (the surface of the deck just above the water).   The electrical rooms are accessed by hatches in the deck.    After experimenting with underwater splices for electrical connections, they discovered that underwater connectors are far more effective.  (NOTE:  we learned later, that there are cameras in the underwater electrical rooms to make sure no one is in them during performance).

Bill Slessor (sp?) — Sustaining Show Technical Director

The show was delivered in 570 truck loads.    Disney constructed an onsite shop for the installation (in the area that will soon be the new “Cars” themed land).   More than 1800 people worked on the construction crew.    It took three months of technical rehearsals to perfect the show.   The show is still being regularly updated with new sequences and features.


**Hyperion Theatre and Aladdin**

From Jerry Tomlinson, Tech Manager

The venue has 72 line sets.   The initial idea was that several traditional theatrical venues would be constructed on each Disney property, and shows would be developed in Anaheim and then “tour” through the other Disney properties.   This has not happened yet.  The Hyperion used sound stage techniques to create a dead space audio-wise.    That way every sound the audience hears is specifically intended by the creative team.     The current show (Aladdin) uses about 600 conventional fixtures, and 90 automated fixtures.   Daily a crew of 6 inspects all motors, rigging, lighting etc before the show crew comes in.     The show crew is 15 people, most are trained for positions on multiple shows (or multiple positions on this show).   Show Automation (Chuck Brandt) is controlled form the trap room, although multiple stage managers and crew have enable or dead man or E-stop switches to maintain safety.   (The flying carpet is currently not in the show  until a technical glitch is fully explored.  Kaitlin Bueon (sp?) demonstrated the lighting system.    Two lightboards (Obsession II, and GrandMA) are used to run the show, but they are linked so only one go-button is needed.   Although the show was originally conceived with three follow spots, the show has only used two since shortly after its opening.  Also, see technical specs package distributed during tour.


**Parade Lighting**

Kaitlin Bueon explained the process of float lighting.   Disney developed a system to send a “go” wirelessly.  This done approximately every 2 1/2 minutes so that if a float is “off” from its cue sequence, it will correct it self in about 2 1/2 minutes.   Each float contains a system playing back DMX (it is not really a lightboard), and batteries to power the (usually low voltage, direct current) lights,   Batteries also need to be on-board to power the parade unit.   Each unit has a driver, but the drivers vision is often impaired.    Each float has an escort who walks along it, next to an e-stop (sometimes 2) in case of emergencies.


**Pyro/Fireworks Show** 

Disney uses a air-fired fireworks system to lessen the environmental impact of the fireworks show.  Strict safety proceeders are in place for loading and firing of the show.   Balloons are released from several points to check wind conditions.   There are approximately 190 shells in the current show, fired from 18 locations around the property.  Each location is visually supervised by a crew member.


**Rope Access**

Disney uses a Rope Access program so that technicians can access parts of the park and its structures that do not have traditional methods of accessibility (such as ladders, cat walks, personnel lifts etc.)    Disney trains its staff to international safety practices.   Prior to any Rope Access project, a risk assessment form (several pages) is created to confirm that there is no other way, safety protocols and several levels of management sign of on the Rope Access project.   At all times in a Rope Access project, the rigger has 2 points of safety contact.  With this method they are able to reach many areas that would not otherwise be accessible.   To date, Disney has a very good safety record with this method (actually a better safety record with Rope Access than traditional methods). We watched  a simulated rescue.


Educating the At Risk Student

Discussion led by William Kenyon

Four main reasons making students at risk:  Money, Physical, Mental, Emotional



Reasons: Family problems, loss of Scholarships, Outside Debts

How to help: 

Work-study positions (even in other arts venues on campus)


Guide students with Budgeting skills

Several free budget templates are available on-line

Explain the concept of Value Gained vs. Value Loss


Change in Family Support

Sometimes families withdraw support

A parental “booster club” can be helpful

Especially if run by parents of former students

Encourage students to be aggressive in applying for scholarships


Reasons: Disabilities, Injuries, Drug/Alcohol Binges, Drug/Alcohol Addiction


Students are often very supportive of other students

Encourage students to form a family like structure


For practicum, create a “Hold a Hammer” day

Allowed one time during the semester

No-Questions-Asked, means “I’m impaired” and no dangerous work

Find out Alcohol/Drug referral program at your school



Reasons:  Short Term Stress, Long Term Stress, PTSD, Eating Disorder, Learning Challenges, Suicidal 

Work to create a family environment so students can support each other

Drill professionalism into students

Students need to be focused on their personal reputation




Adjusting to College Life

Peer Pressure

Death of a family member

Couple Breakups




Louis Valdez

“What is the stage”

Theatre of the Sphere — Circle in a Square

The Square is the stage

The circle is unending, embracing the actors & the audience

Theatre is in the Audience, not on the stage

Theatre artists must turn their negatives into positives

Theatre can be non-violent weapon against oppression

Theatre as the language of teh human spirit

Light is an active participant in the theatre

as are all design elements

A community is needed for theatre

Theatre should be developed for a specific community

Technicians/Designers:  givers of mission & movement

The future belongs to those who can imagine it.



Digital Portfolio

Presented by Michael Harvey and Brian Swanson


What is the Goal

Is it to suplement the physical portfolio

Is it to replacement of the physical portfolio







Resolution / storage


Media (not all computers have CD Drives)



Websites should be a content management system

Such as Joomela (sp?)


From Holly Pierce


Hyperlink tool — Allows links to other points in the document

Adobe Accrobat

Can embed hyperlinks

New software (getting better):  Acrobat Portfolio




Don’t s

Non Linear Navigation

Plan (do a flow chart)

Remember Basic Design skills

Showcase your Work

Keep it Simple

Same Format in the whole presentation

Be consistent

Build digital portfolio for a specific audience

Test Test Test Test

Design a nice label for your CD (NO SHARPIE!!)

Make it hard to find your stuff

Take more than 3 clicks from start page to any image

Do more than 5 images / show 


Use more than 2 fonts

embed video needlessly





Presented by Dan Robinson, Scott Ollinger, Matt Allar, Jeremy Hopgood, Shelby Newpart


What is Co-Curricular

Coordinating with curricular elements

Something in addition to the curriculum



Take out the “Co:

Craft flexible syllabi that allow for many opportunities

Create Permanent Topics Courses to use for unusual projects

Use the “Guest Star”

Interview a Guest artist in class over Skype

Think about guest lecturers from other disciplines

Co-produce a show with another theatre company

Get Out of Here

Travel with the students

Tie in events such as USITT, Urta, SETC, NETC, etc.

Overcoming Cost Challenges


Students forming official student groups and requesting funds from student governments

Create a Student USITT official student club


Show Me the Money

Look For

Internal incentives

Faculty Development

Special Campus Funds

Campus Wide Themes or programs

Always try to tie funding requests to current “Buzz Words”

Student Involvement

Clearly define how students are involved

During pre-production, production, and post production

Define the role of the volunteer

Make sure the students understand the requirements and expectations

Make sure there is an evaluation at the end of the project.

Talk the Talk

Develop Interdepartmental projects

Tie into Campus wide initiatives 

Try to work with other programs (on and off campus)


Creative teaching projects for Technical Theatre (Poster Session)

**Model in a Box**

Students (as a group) are given a poem (recommended Poe or Frost)

& a set of materials (each group gets a copy of the same set), and a matching box

With only the addition of glue and color media and scissors, students interpret the poem as a scenic design in the box.  Working entirely within class (2 class sessions)

Teaches Time management, planning (students may plan outside of class), and collaboration


**M&Ms and Primary Colors of Light **

Set up lighting instruments with heavy primary colors

Display a bowl of M&Ms, ask students to separate the M&Ms based on color under each primary

Turn on white light so students can see how they did.

Teaches:   how lighting color affects perceived object color.


**Pick You Season** (NOTE: Have hand out)

Students, work in groups.

Given the parameters of the department’s season

Students create a focussed list of potential plays (2 or 3x the final number)

Analyze each play in terms of Budget, rights, themes, marketing, student participation etc.

Using analysis students select final season, including overall marketing scheme f


Teaches basic lessons in producing


**That’s the Lecture Now Let’s Build!**

Hand out only — needs to be considered for scene shop portion ofTA 23


**Super Hero Project**

(Hand out given to our costume instructor)

Costume design project, could be applied to more!

Teacher generated a number of adjectives about a character, and a number if (silly) Superhero abilities.

Students draw a selection of adjectives, and a super hero ability, and create a super hero based on what they drew.

Students create a back story, and then a costume.


Teaches: Character analysis, filling in gaps in a script, develops drawing skills

NOTE:   If we ever did the CID intro to design class — this could be an over all project — designing the costume for the costume portion, the “lair” for the scenic portion, lighting the space for lighting, and creating a mini radio play about the superhero for sound???  Maybe it could be considered if we are in a place where we are expanding offereings


5D and the future of design

NOTE: This session focused on the work of designers who use multimedia in design.   It was more about philosophy of high budget design than techniques about multi-media.


These designers have a preference of working with people with diverse (non-theatre) backgrounds because it “keeps the blinders off” from everyone

No one know what is and isn’t possible so all ideas are worth exploring


Extensive prototyping of ideas


At smaller scales


Collaboration between the entire design team is essential


Basic Process:

Group Analyzes the Group Mandate (Their word for concept)

THEN:  Each specialist (designer etc.) does their thing (very free form) without knowing what the others are doing

THEN: All ideas are brought back tot he group and critically analyzed

THEN the Group Mandate is reevaluated (does it need to develop more, or be made more flexible?)

More concrete ideas are formed and work moves on in earnest.   Specialists often work very closely developing other areas than there own (a scenic designer on a specific project may get very involved with the costume process — mixing it up is ok so long as all the work is covered, and no one is over burdened.)


Multi-disciplinary  skills are vital


Top qualifications to work in this methodology:  People skills

Even if someone isn’t the best at a task, they probably know someone who is who can come in for a day or two if needed.


New term: Trans-media == Film+Theatre+Video+Themed entertainment

Regardless of training, venue/media does not change the design process.


Video Projection on Scenery

Presented by Koi (sp?) Hopper, Jeff Doughty, Adam Dahl, Kevin Griffin, Robert Miller


LED Framing spot — allows brighter deep colors, multipurpose a single gobo


Presentation on Rollin College Media Projects

Programs like “Media Shout” more adept than Powerpoint for what we do

Other choices: Isadora, Arkaos Media Master Express


Best choice: A media server


1 Media Server + Software + One High end project – Educational discount = approx. $10,000


Places to get quality video content affordably:, istockvideo


BlueKaos –DMX Media Server aprox. $5000 software — inexpensive, limited but powerful — House of Worship site — better prices on projectors than mainstream places



Death of the Incandescent Lamp

presented by Fred Foster, and Howard Brandsten


Read 2008 article titled ????   found at


What will we do without incandescent lamps?

Onstage lights not directly affected by new laws

Once household lights are not incan., cost of production of stage lights will go up


the Lumens/watt formula of efficiency is not actually a good indicator (Incans are far easier to safely dispose of than CFLs, little to no study on safe disposal of LEDs)


LED lamps are not full spectrum (nor are CFLs)


Dangers of CFL:   Mercury, Radio Interference, implanted medical device interference, if broken a HazMat clean up must be performed


Make up rooms,  dressing rooms etc. are affected by new laws


recommended EBook:   ILightBulb


Teaching Technical Theatre to Non-Technical Students

Presented by: David Navalisky, Kat VanKleet, Ashley Bellet, Vincent Lobell, Ross Roushkolb


Goals of projects:

Increase Student Interest

Build Vocabulary

Teach Essential Skills

Meet Curriculum Requirements

Demonstrate connection to their life beyond theatre.


First thing to remember:   They havn’t done this before, they have never been taught


50% Project

Class jointly designs a set for a play (int. realism)

The set is then constructed at 50% (6” = 1’ -0” Scale)

Can usually be done from scrap

Working in small teams the set is divided up for people to build

Then assembled. When things don’t fit right, the group stops to figure out why

No blame


Build a Hero 

A Repeat from the poster session


Design Morgue

Students are given an adjective and asked to create a design board of visual research to represent the adjective.

In class the morgues are discussed and analyzed.

Done on a regular basis through out a semester.


Fake Food

For either  a prop class or general intro to stage craft

Students are assigned to find a play that mentions food.

Students research what the food would like, and research (often internet) how to make a fake version

The students must then build fake food that meets the description.  

Added bonus:   TD & Prop master judge the food.  Anything that is deemed good enough to go into storage for the department earns an “A” on the project.



Other tips to make people more excited about tech:


Foster friendly competition in the projects, makes students try harder

In stage craft class, have everyone who works on a set piece sign the back of it.

Create a grid of all of the essential skills — when a student has mastered the skill, it gets signed off on.


ADA in the technical theatre classroom

Presented by Montana Hisec-Cochran



Section 504 of  the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Organizations that receive federal funds are barred from discrimination

ADA 1990

Extension of the above, but not covers places of public accommodation


FOR Colleges and universities

Law requires accommodations, not modification of curriculum


Higher Ed is not required to:

Substantial alteration of the curriculum

Substantial alteration of the manner in which program is offered

to have an undue burden to the institution


Note:  Undue burden arguments rarely fly in court

However, schools do not need to change (by federal law) the delivery method of a class (traditional or on-line) (STATE laws may be different, work with local ADA office on campus)


Before an ADA student may enter a class, he/she must be otherwise qualified

For example if a student must meet certain proficiencies of a program to be admitted, the ADA does not change that


Brochure available on Universal Design of courses


Dealing with ADA students in technical theatre classes:


Examine the essential elements (in our case SLOs)

These are the requirements for the class

Consider how they can be met with in the students abilities


Communication is key

The students is probably well versed in their disability

If there are additional concerns speak with the camps ADA counselor or coordinator


SUGGESTION: put campus address of ADA office in syllabi


SUGGESTION: if the class has an on-line component, add ASL interpreters to the Blackboard site — this helps them be prepared for what they will be interpreting.


If your class will have an ASL interpreter, think about placement where so the student can “hear” the lecture and watch what needs to be seen.


If you know in advance, ask the ADA office if you can learn some key signs for your class (especially safety)


Guiding principles in making adaptations/accommodations:





SUGGESTED THEATRE READING: “Beyond Victims & Villains, Contemporary plays by handicapped playwrights”